South Australia’s most senior health bureaucrat has been handed a lucrative new contract as the state’s biggest department battles a sluggish COVID-19 vaccine rollout and multiple crises.
Premier Steven Marshall has reappointed SA Health chief executive officer, Chris McGowan, for the next three years earning $575,000 a-year to head the $7.1 billion system.
Dr McGowan, who has faced several controversies over his previous three-year term, remains the state’s second highest paid public servant after earning a 2.5 per cent or, $14,000 a year payrise.
His appointment comes as SA Health faces criticism over its coronavirus vaccine program, unprecedented mental health demand, hospital overcrowding and ambulance ramping.
Dr McGowan, who also sits on the COVID Transition Committee, has helped oversee SA Health’s world-leading pandemic response.
There had been widespread speculation Dr McGowan, a former private sector health chief who was this week embroiled in a new sexism row, would leave his role when his contract ended this week.
But in a statement issued after months of inquiries from The Advertiser, Dr McGowan said he agreed to new terms as “continuity and stability of leadership is key in the response to the pandemic”.
“The pandemic is not over yet and my key priority from here is to ensure the vaccination rollout is successful and we keep South Australia COVID safe,” he said.
Dr McGowan, 62, spent more than a decade leading Silver Chain, which manages the Royal District Nursing Service, before the State Government hired him in April 2018.
In the early part of his tenure he faced repeated questions about his links with his former private sector employer and a scathing anti-corruption report.
But he was allowed to keep his job in January last year after an independent investigation into allegations of conflict of interest involving his links with Silver Chain.
While Mr Marshall said there was no evidence Dr McGowan sought to benefit from his ties to the SA Health contractor, Commonwealth Ombudsman Professor John McMillan criticised his “failure … to put appropriate conflict of interest arrangements in place” and for taking some inappropriate meetings. He said he sought “professional guidance”.
During heated evidence to MPs in September last year, Dr McGowan told a parliamentary committee he didn’t have a right of contract renewal but he “hadn’t made my mind up” about seeking an extension.
Opposition spokesman Chris Picton said ambulance ramping has “doubled since the Liberals were elected and the Chief Executive was appointed”.
“Steven Marshall must reveal whether he has made ending ramping a condition of the contract extension with Chris McGowan,” he said.
He asked whether all of Dr McGowan’s counselling had been completed.
Mr Marshall was unavailable for comment.
But a government spokesman said Dr McGowan would continue overseeing record spending after Labor’s “disastrous Transforming Health experiment downgraded” system capacity.
“Our state remains one of the safest places in the world during the pandemic,” he said.
“During COVID, hospitals throughout the nation have experienced increased demand and we are committed to building a better health system for all South Australians.”